Last summer, best buddies Colton Smith and Jack Steward grabbed their wet suits and paddle boards and headed to the Chugach National Forest near Anchorage, Alaska. Their goal? To see if they could hang 10 atop a rare bore tide.
“It’s a crazy phenomenon where the tide pushes water up a river, a channel, and creates a surfable wave,” explained Steward.
“We’re talking about the longest wave in America,” added Smith.
The two 30-year-old best buddies weren’t tackling a bucket-list vacation. They were attempting to master the Alaskan wave for the first episode of the new season of “Rock the Park,” an award-winning national travel reality show. The sixth season premieres Oct. 6 on ABC-TV.
Created by the Minnesota production company owned by former WCCO newscaster Colleen Needles Steward, “Rock the Park” snags more than a million viewers a week who tune in to watch Smith and Steward explore the parks, monuments, preserves and forests administered by the National Park Service.
With cameras rolling, they’ve gone mountain biking, traversed remote glaciers and sea kayaked while surrounded by beluga whales. In the upcoming season, they’ll crisscross the country shooting episodes from the Petrified Forest in Arizona, Florida’s Big Cypress Preserve and the Mississippi River and National Recreation Area in the Twin Cities.
“We’re bringing the national parks to living rooms, taking people along with us to the grand and wild places they never knew existed,” said Steward.
In every episode, Smith and Steward shout “If we can do it, you can do it!” But it’s more than just a motto.
“There’s a deeper philosophical meaning to that,” said Smith. “We want to show that if we can take on a challenge that’s intimidating and step out of our comfort zone, you can, too. We aren’t afraid to show we’re fearful sometimes, but we can’t let that keep us from an activity that could be life-changing.”
While every location is researched and the story points mapped out in advance, things can change once the hosts and crew are in the field. Chance, the weather and Mother Nature often upend plans.
“We have learned how to stay calm in a crazy situation and we try to make the unexpected part of the story when we can,” said Heidi Ruen, the show’s producer.
Smith and Steward have crawled out of a flooded New Mexico cavern, come face-to-face with grizzly bears in Alaska, battled rising water in a West Virginia river gorge and withstood 60-mile-per-hour winds that struck their mountaintop base camp in Washington.
“The best things on our show — and the best things in life — come out of nowhere and you deal with it,” Steward said.
Smith and Steward met when they were in elementary school at St. John the Baptist in Excelsior. Even then, they were making movies with their families’ home video cameras.
“The core of our friendship is that we have always been documenters. Our home movies date back to second grade,” said Steward. “Our lives have been intertwined ever since.”
Steward majored in photojournalism at the University of Montana. Smith started college at Northern Michigan University, but changed his plans after he visited Steward out west.
“It was the first time I had seen the Rocky Mountains and on a hike through God’s country, I felt this wave of emotion hit me, I was brought to tears,” Smith said. “By the end of that trip, I transferred to Montana.”
Steward was producing multimedia projects on the outdoors for his classes, but for fun, he and Smith often took trips to Yellowstone or Glacier, where they recorded their activities and edited them into video shorts.
Steward showed one of the videos to his mother, Needles Steward.
“What I saw was really good — suspenseful, they found a great story. And they were so real on camera, eager and passionate. I thought viewers would respond to that,” she said.
After her 14-year career as a nightly news anchor at WCCO, Needles Steward founded Tremendous Entertainment Inc. Her company has produced dozens of unscripted series for Hallmark, the Travel Channel, Lifetime and other cable outlets.
At first, she thought her son and Smith’s videos might make for a web series.
“But we pitched it to several networks. One liked it and wanted a series and we were off and running,” she said.
Today, Needles Steward brings her executive’s eye and her maternal pride to “Rock the Park.”
After each segment is shot, the footage is Fed Ex’d to the Tremendous offices in Minnetonka, where it’s made into a rough cut by writers and editors. Then, Needles Steward and Ruen review and tweak every frame. Music and graphics are added, then the episode is forwarded to the network for final approval.
“I don’t have time to screen every episode of every series we do, but I make it a point with this one,” Needles Steward said. “It’s a passion project for all of us. They keep getting better and better, so the show does, too.”
Forging a bond
Needles Steward said that despite all the scenic and action shots, the secret to the show hinges on the chemistry between Smith and Steward.
“Networks try to partner people who don’t know each other and it feels false. With Jack and Colton, that relationship is magic,” she said. “You can’t fake their years of being close. They know each other so well and they are willing to be vulnerable with each other.”
Both single, Smith and Steward spend half the year on the road, often in close quarters, and the other half in prepping and research meetings.
“The pressure of being in dangerous situations continually tests and strengthens our relationship,” said Steward. “We have to be able to depend on each other.”
While they both live in California now and see each other frequently when they’re not shooting “Rock the Park,” they’ve discovered that friendship — and their series — works better when they’re not roommates.
“I’m high-strung, loud and rambunctious, the kid who can’t sit still,” said Smith. “Jack is introspective, creative, a thinker, a planner. We are different, but through our shared interest in nature we found a bonding force.”
They’ve also found plenty of avid fans.
Jeremy and Stephanie Puglisi have been watching the show with their three sons since it premiered.
“There is very little truly family-friendly TV to watch together. ‘Rock the Park’ is as entertaining for me as it is for the boys,” said Jeremy.
The New Jersey couple have turned their coast-to-coast camping adventures with their boys into a family business, producing guidebooks and podcasts (the RV Atlas and Campground of the Week). They also share their travels on blogs and social media. Still, they use “Rock the Park” as their guide.
“Before we go to a park, we watch to see what Jack and Colton did,” said Jeremy. They also record every episode and keep them on their DVR for future reference.
But it’s the personal connection that the Puglisis value most.
“We tag them on Instagram and they tag us back,” said Jeremy. “That interaction with the young fan base nurtures the next generation of conservationists.”
By any measure, “Rock the Park” is a success. It’s won an Emmy and been on the air for six seasons, a near-eternity in the fickle world of television programming. While the show won’t likely air for decades, the hosts never worry about running out of real-life drama in the wilderness.
“We can keep this going as long as they will let us,” said Smith. “We are incredibly blessed in this country with the abundance and diversity of our national parks. There are so many new places to visit and endless opportunities to revisit.”
Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.